The National has been in the slow lane to fame for more than a decade. For the more recent fan who has heard the song “Lean” on the latest Hunger Games soundtrack, or that their 2013 album, Trouble Will Find Me nominated for a Grammy, it might come as a surprise that this is their sixth album. Having moved to Brooklyn from Cincinnati to start careers in music, Matt Berninger and Scott Devendorf in the band Nancy; Bryan Devendorf, Aaron and Bryce Dessner as Project Nim, they all came together in 1999 to officially make music as The National.
They didn’t quit their day jobs. Instead making music in their spare time and playing free shows on Sunday nights at Luna’s Lounge. They released their self-titled debut album in 2001. It is emblematic of early indie rock and the alt-country influence of bands like Wilco. Led by Matt Berninger’s lyrics and distinctive baritone (and Johnny Cash like) voice, and the Dessner twins as primary music writers (Bryce’s other job is as a composer), they have spent the last 10 years perfecting the malaise and melancholic feel of 21st century America.
By the time they released their 3rd album, Alligator they were a staple on the touring circuit, playing Pitchfork’s music festival and selling out shows.
The National have become masters of sadness. That pace of the music and the themes of loneliness (“About Today”), the fragility of commitment and relationships (“Trophy Wife,” “Baby We’ll Be Fine,” and “Apartment Story”), and regret (“I Should Live in Salt”). There is a subtle hint of self-loathing but it is not overwhelming, rather more of a suspicion that the situations we find ourselves in are probably our own fault. If we could just figure out where the right outlet for our frustrations and sadness, we might be left with something more than a sea of “Sorrow.”
Sorrow found me when I was young
Sorrow waited, sorrow won
Sorrow they put me on the pill
It's in my honey, it's in my milk
Don't leave my hyper heart alone on the water
Cover me in rag and bone sympathy
'cos I don't wanna get over you
It was with their breakout album, The Boxer where the odd syncopation from the first notes of “Fake Empire,” alert you to something bigger. The political and the existential come to a collision course:
Stay out super late tonight picking apples, making pies
Put a little something in our lemonade and take it with us
We're half awake in a fake empire
Turn the light out say goodnight, no thinking for a little while
Let's not try to figure out everything at once
It's hard to keep track of you falling through the sky
We're half awake in a fake empire
By the second song, “Mistaken For Strangers” became an anthem of the struggle of having to become an adult.
Following the success of The Boxer, they were freed from trying to make music that fans would like, and on High Violet the band gets more ambition and takes more risks. They begin to ask more existential questions about faith (“Little Faith”), God (“Graceless”), sorrow, and the meaning of love (“Terrible Love”) and a seemingly synthetic world (“Lemonworld”).
It might be easy to dismiss The National as the music of depression or cynicism. But when the broader pop music world is upbeat and full of optimism, any alternative is going to seem like a downer. If the music had a monotone and droning quality this might be justified. As music critic Lisa-Marie Ferla writes, “The idiosyncratic rhythms turn the songs into living, unpredictable things.” These rhythms help drive the stories giving the listener an indication of progress and hope.
The National’s sound and lyrics have a sense of authenticity. The audience understands the realistic expression of how it feels to live in a world with real brokenness. Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine down, The National writes songs for those rainy days, or for the snow day where you would actually rather be at school or work distracted from yourself.
I couldn't find quiet
I went out in the rain
I was just soakin' my head to unrattle my brain
It wasn't like a rain it was more like a sea
I didn't ask for this pain it just came over me
I love a storm, but I don't love lightning
All the waters coming up so fast, that's frightening
The authenticity has obviously connected with many people; their audiences just keep getting bigger.
On their latest effort, Trouble Will Find Me, they take some hints from U2 and get closer to turning sorrow into longing. The song “Heavenfaced” is not only sonically channeling U2, but gives the listener a glimpse of a more hopeful future.
I could walk out, but I won’t,
In my mind I am in your arms.
Let’s go wait out in the fields with the ones we love.
Because we’ll all arrive in heaven alive
We’ll all arrive
For The National, there is a place for mourning and disappointment, in fact, the music gives voice and helps the audience express the emotions of transitions. For an audience wanting to find a place to belong, these songs are reassurance that it is a common human experience. And what’s more, fitting in is not proof of adulthood and maturity.
Maturity requires asking bigger, better questions, not merely for the sake of asking questions, but to make an attempt at wisdom. The National doesn’t provide a solution or an ending to the story, rather they are encouraging curiosity and a space to express and really feel the transitions in life as we experience them at our most human, in all its visceral messiness.
~ Greg Veltman